Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cambodia Journal I: Siem Reap

Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
It’s disconcerting to arrive at the site of one of the world’s greatest atrocities and find a sparkling clean environment in which Route I American style greets you as you drive in from the airport. It’s as if modern American consumerism had provided the whitewash. Not that anyone is trying to hide anything, but there’s a thriving tourist industry which fills the Vietnam Airlines planes flying into Siem Reap and one has the impression that at least some of the arriving tourists have never heard of Pol Pot or the dreaded Duch who ran the notorious S-21 prison that seeded the notorious “killing fields.” Many Americans first leaned about  “the killing fields” in a book written by the New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg about the Cambodian he worked with as he was covering the fall of Phnom Penh, The Death and Life of Dith PranNow of course Duch is on trial, but what has replaced the professionals and intelligentsia the Khmer Rouge murdered in order to fulfill the millenarian dream of a totally class free society? Over two million Cambodians died in the four year period in between l975-9 when the Khmer Rouge ruled. China had its Cultural Revolution in which this same elements of society were sent to re-education camps, which, however brutal, didn’t decimate a demographic of lawyers, doctors, educators, writers and artists who were eventually allowed to return to their homes. You look for clues about the past in the cheerful faces of drivers, desk clerks and tour guides who will lead you to the great temples of the past, yet find no answer to yesterday. It’s a little like one of those murder mysteries with the disappearing corpse. 


  1. This was not my experience. While it is truly remarkable how the tourist trade is bringing the economy forward at such a fast pace, there are remnants of the old regime that seep through the cracks of the new veneer. I was in Siem Reap last February and traveled with a guide to Banteay Srei Temple approximately 25 kilometers from the main Ankor Wat complex. We traveled along a road which he told me was built by his father (an engineer) prior to the Khmer Rouge. His father was able to save his own life and his families because he was warned by the road workers before the Khmer Rouge came. They hid as peasants during the despicable reign. The father stopped wearing eyeglasses so as not to be counted as part of the intelligentsia. My guide talked a great deal about the devastation of the Khmer Rouge and how the country is now starting from nothing and has a long way to go to bring itself back. Returning from the temple, we visited a museum and orphanage tied to land mines and the devastation wrought to children. Cambodia still has more land mines than any other country in the world.

  2. I agree basically. I’m writing a blog and hence responding to immediate impressions. As you read on over the next few days,particularly with regard to the killing fields memorial in Siem Reap, some of these first impressions are modified. On the other hand, I must say that first impressions carry with them an Irremediable truth and remember it;s the human condition to forget.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.